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Interview: Mena Trott & Andrew Anker of Six Apart

By Chris Karr in Miscellaneous on Jul 31, 2006 9:05PM

Last week after a recent technology mixer, Chicagoist had the opportunity to sit down with Mena Trott and Andrew Anker of Six Apart. Six Apart is the company that writes the software that powers your humble Chicagoist blog in addition to sites like TypePad and LiveJournal. Mena and Andrew were in the city pitching their newest project, a free personal blogging service called Vox.

The morning after the mixer, we visited them to chat about their visit to the Windy City.

Chicagoist: So, what are you guys doing in Chicago?

Mena Trott: We’re here in Chicago because we’re doing a preview release tour of Vox, which is our new blogging tool. We picked Chicago because we wanted to make sure that we had a representation in cities other than San Francisco. So, we’ve been going to different cities on the East Coast – we went to Washington DC the other day, New York last month. Chicago was on the map because it’s a city that has a great blogging community, and we knew a lot of people that we wanted to talk to. Another reason is that Ben and I came to Chicago probably almost three and a half years ago to do an MT (Movable Type, ed.) talk, and the Chicago bloggers came out, and they were really great, and we went out afterwards. It was a really great experience. So we definitely wanted to hit this city.

(More after the jump.)

C: What is Vox?

M: Vox is the service that we created for really personal blogging. So many people have become intimidated by blogs from what they see – blogging is about traffic, blogging is about being controversial, or it’s about being a media outlet. There are personal blogs, but I think that there are some new features that are needed. One of those things happen to be privacy. Vox gets privacy right because people are able to post for certain audiences. For instance, I can post for my friends and family, or my family only. Another post can be public. That’s a big thing.

Another thing that we wanted to do well was to have a really easy interface and media-rich integration with different services.

C: How much do you see Vox as a blogging tool versus another MySpace-style social network?

M: Vox first and foremost is a blogging tool. Six Apart is a blogging company. We wanted to make sure that you had the best blogging experience possible. And so, we don’t pretend to try and be a social network. A social network is the backbone of our service. But unlike a lot of other services, it’s not all about connections and finding friends. It’s about building a relationship with them afterwards. Or sharing your life with them afterwards. And so we focus on “Ok, you have your friends. Now, what’s next?”

C: So, how can users “share their lives” using Vox?

Andrew Anker: We thought that it was important with Vox to focus on blogging as it is today. If you look at blogs, they’ve really developed as a text tool. But if you look at how users are using them today, it’s about rich media. It’s video, it’s audio, and certainly photos are deeply integrated. It’s also posting via mobile means – cellphones and all the different devices that we have around us. What we try to do with Vox is to pull all these tools in and not assign a preference to them. If you want to sit down and type text into a page – great. That’s easy. If you have a whole family album of photos that you want to share, only share certain ones with certain people – even better. If you have old videos that you’ve now digitized, kids' birthday parties or whatever – you can bring that all in. Vox has the privacy that Mena talked about which applies to every asset. You can do things like decide on an asset-by-asset basis. There might be a weekend that you want to talk about. You don’t care who reads what happened on the weekend, but there’s a lot of photos of the kid’s party or video of you at the beach that you only want a certain set of people to see. In the same post, you can say, “This is for everybody, and this video is only for my friends.”

C: At the demo party, you said that you wanted to bring blogging back to a “happy place”. Where did that idea come from?

M: The example I’ve used and I’ve written about a bunch of times (and gave a talk on at TED earlier this year) was about when I started my blog because I wanted reach a huge audience. This was 2001 and I felt that I wasn’t going to be famous in the real world, so I could be famous to some people through my blog. I soon had fifteen to twenty thousand readers a day, and that was great – at first.

But then it put too much pressure on what my writing was. I’d write a post that was supposed to be a joke – maybe about my husband – the banjo post is one I always talk about. I wrote about wanting a banjo, and my husband said that we weren’t going to buy one because I don’t play the banjo, I don’t play musical instruments – and he didn’t want me spending three hundred dollars on it. So, I wrote this post saying that he was a tyrant. It was all tongue-in-cheek because my husband’s sweet and I’m usually the tyrant.

The response that I got from people who didn’t know that it was a joke was amazing. They were like, “Leave your husband. How much does he spend on beer in a year? You need a separate bank account, it’s the 21st century.” That was really a wake-up call that a lot of people who read my blog didn’t know who I was and were just going to criticize me. And that was a really small scale compared to what we see now in blogging. That was two-and-a-half or three years ago.

People are really excited about blogging at first, and then they start getting the detracting comments. They see a troll come in. Or someone links to them and says that the person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. If you’re writing about your pets or you’re writing about your family and someone criticizes you in any form, that’s enough to make you not want to blog. Ever again. We wouldn’t be doing this company if blogging wasn’t one of the best things to happen to us in recent times. And we wanted to bring this to everybody and create a place where they could have fun, talk to their friends, talk about things that are interesting to them and not feel intimidated by “the blogosphere”. I hate using that word, but I think the blogosphere refers to all the people that talk about blogging all the time. There’s the people that are blogging, and don’t care that they’re blogging, and there’s the ones that talk about it constantly. And I’d rather people just blog and not have to be part of this critiquing and acknowledging it more than just a great way to communicate.

C: So is some of the negativity we see in the blogosphere a function of the size of the audience?

M: I think size definitely matters. Blogging isn’t the only place that has trolls. You can imagine having a mailing list that has twenty people. It’s going to have a very different feel than a list that has two hundred people. And to think that when we started blogging that we could count on our hands the number of really significant blogs, and now there’s so much blogging – which is great. This is why we are a business still. But it’s hard to have a conversation. You don’t go to dinner with a hundred and fifty of your closest friends and have a good time. You talk to six people around you. And that’s the same thing we’ve learned from LiveJournal. Most people on LiveJournal have from six to twelve readers. And that’s because it’s most conducive to a good conversation.

C: So, is six to twelve readers the sweet spot to keep the conversating going, or can it scale a bit higher?

M: I think it can scale a bit more than that. I feel that right now, with my Vox, I have about a hundred friends that read it. A lot of them are employees. The company’s grown so much. I used to not have any friends. When I started my blog, I had like two friends. Now, there’s so many people that I want to share my life with. And that number’s fine right now. I think that most people are going to realize that two digits is the safest place to be.


At the moment, Vox is invitation-only until it goes live in October. After playing with our own Vox site for a bit, we've been impressed with the amount of thought that has gone into the service and how people are using it. If you're interested in checking out the site a bit early, we're sitting on three invites at the moment. The first three interested commenters to leave a post with a working e-mail address will become the owners of these new shiny invitations.